Bill poses threat to city Land Bank
HUNTINGTON -- Huntington Mayor Steve Williams made a quick and unexpected trip to Charleston on Tuesday, after a bill that would allow municipalities across the state to establish "land trusts" -- a concept based on Huntington's Land Bank program -- emerged with an amendment that he claimed would be devastating to the city.
Senate Bill 579, which passed its house of origin on Feb. 25 by a 33-0 vote, was tweaked in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, adding a provision that land trust programs could only bid the property tax value plus interest on property such entities wish to attain.
That would essentially keep the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority's Land Bank from bidding toe-to-toe with other agencies or businesses on properties with tax liens filed against them.
Huntington developed its Land Bank under the Home Rule Pilot Program and has used the entity to fight blighted property.
"I wasn't really alarmed," Williams said Tuesday. "I just looked at what had happened and who I needed to talk to, and had some conversations."
The mayor said it was his understanding that the amendment, added by Del. Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, was made simply because legislators weren't aware of how such a program has been used in Huntington.
"I've had to explain this before," Williams said. "Once people find out what we're doing, they've been supportive of the program."
Williams said he talked with Lane, and it was his understanding the amendment would be struck from the bill Wednesday.
Lane couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, but Del. Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, said that was also her understanding of what would occur Wednesday.
Sobonya is on the judiciary committee. She said the amendment passed unanimously because the committee had consulted the West Virginia Municipal League, and no one from that organization thought it would be a problem.
The entire Cabell County delegation in the House is expected to speak in favor of striking the amendment, and no opposition is likely, Williams said.
"What I'm proud of is that our entire delegation is working in a non-partisan way to help," he said.
Sobonya said she doesn't have any problem with the legislation, but is troubled by the trend of bills that form a state law to legalize something that was first enacted under the Home Rule program.
"From day one I've said that the pilot program is unconstitutional," she said. "It is very disappointing that question can never be answered.
"I think more power closer to home is a good thing, and what works for Huntington might not work for Wheeling. But just because we can do it doesn't make it right if we're violating the constitution. I think it's disingenuous to do this over and over."
The bill as amended went through first reading in the House on Tuesday, but has two more readings to go before it becomes a potential law to be sent to the governor for final approval.
Between 2011 and late 2013, the program had acquired 200 parcels of land. Of those, 74 have been resold for $453,901.
The money has gone back into the program toward stabilization, demolition or paying down the Land Bank's line of credit, which stands at $608,000. Thirty-two vacant, dilapidated structures have been demolished at a cost of $268,000.
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